Denzel Washington as Frank
Chris Pine as Will
Rosario Dawson as Connie
Ethan Suplee as Dewey
Kevin Dunn as Galvin
Kevin Corrigan as Inspector Werner
Kevin Chapman as Bunny
Lew Temple as Ned
T.J. Miller as Gilleece
Jessy Schram as Darcy
David Warshofsky as Judd Stewart
Andy Umberger as Janeway
Elizabeth Mathis as Nicole
Meagan Tandy as Maya
I'm wracking my brain trying to think if there was ever a time when director Tony Scott managed better than just workman like in a film he made. On the one hand, even the worst of his films hasn't been much less than that, so at least he's consistent. But despite some visual and formalistic experimentation (and inside the action-thriller genre no less) over the last decade he's never managed more than that. "Unstoppable" is just the latest example.
Loosely based on a real incident from the early 2000s, Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine) are a pair of everyday working stiffs – a hard-nosed veteran and a fresh faced rookie (as if there were any other kind in a Hollywood film) – getting ready to face every railman's worst nightmare: an out of control freight train, filled with volatile chemicals and heading for southern Pennsylvania at 70 miles per hour.
A lot of the experimentation Scott played with in "Man on Fire" and "Domino" has gradually be jettisoned over his last several films in a return to straight forward story telling except for penchant for crash zooming in order to punctuate emotional moments. He has, however, decided that every scene can be made more dynamic with some camera movement, which often involves spinning crazily around his subject like a shot-reject from a Michael Bay film. Considering much of the action takes place inside the cramped confines of an office and a train engine that's more than a little understandable, it often detracts from the actors themselves.
That's not entirely unexpected in what is after all a rather low-key disaster film (more so, probably, than a chase movie), which is far more involved with the immediate moments of its plot than anything involving the actual characters.
To keep that from being too obvious, Scott has turned back to his favorite leading man, Denzel Washington, for the third time in a row, replacing Spike Lee as Washington's most frequent collaborator. It's something of a plus and a minus; on the one hand Washington can anchor this kind of film in his sleep and still be good, on the other that doesn't change the fact that he has little to do as both and co-star Pine take a back-seat to the train itself. They don't even become fully involved with the chase until roughly the half-way mark.
That's because this is classic Hollywood plot driven entertainment vehicle, which isn't a problem in and of itself. The set up is extremely coincidence happy – just the right number of things have to happen in the right order to get the runaway train moving and to get Frank and Will in position to do something about it. That's something of a gimmie in these kinds of films and isn't immediately a deal breaker. The problem is, once "Unstoppable" gets rolling it quickly runs out of ideas. In a fairly short film already there is a dearth of action sequences with the ones available feeling largely perfunctory as there is rarely someone in actual danger to create tension and drama.
When the film ends it actually comes as something of a shock as it felt like a much bigger and better finale was just on its way, but the film just ran out of track. An action movie can sustain a lack of drama; it can't sustain a lack of dynamism and "Unstoppable" comes up a little short in that department.
A journeyman thriller from a journeyman director, "Unstoppable" is just good enough to leave you wanting more (except for the insistently spinning camera, please stop doing that). Not as a sequel, but an actual extra thirty-minutes of film. The end result is pleasing but anti-climactic, not so much unstoppable as unsatisfying.